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How you can tell it’s fall in L.A., according to a guy from Vermont

A pumpkin-headed, plaid-shirted figure holding a Dodger foam finger and a Starbucks cup
(Illustration by Susana Sanchez / Los Angeles Times)

When I arrived in Southern California from Vermont more than a quarter of a century ago, I made the rookie mistake of thinking Los Angeles was a seasonless city, an endless summer and a perpetual day at the beach.

After all, Vermont does its seasonal transitions, especially the summer-to-fall one, like nobody’s business. Autumn in the Northeast cannot be ignored. It arrives with all the subtlety of Carrot Top on a fire engine, the trees covering the hills of the Green Mountain State exploding into a riot of blazing oranges, flaming crimsons and sunny yellows like a last, dramatic bid for attention before ceding the seasonal stage to Old Man Winter.

An insider’s travel guide that takes you beyond the mouse ears, selfie spots and Golden Gate Bridge.

Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate the more modest shifts that mark SoCal seasons (May gray, June gloom, the El Niño winds), but part of me always yearned for the showy cacophony of color, the festive foliar flare that takes summer out with a bang. A few years ago, I realized there were color-coded harbingers that fall had arrived right under my nose (and I’m not referring to astronomical fall — Sept. 22 — which is based on the autumnal equinox, but the feeling that the seasonal page has turned). They were just, like the seasons here themselves, a lot more muted. Below are a few of the colors that, to this former Vermonter, signal that L.A.'s version of autumn is well under way.

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Heat-map red

A color-coded weather map from Oct. 2, 2020.
A weather graphic from the Oct. 2, 2020, print edition of the Los Angeles Times serves up one of SoCal fall’s signature hues — heat-map red.
(accuweather.com)

You’ll usually notice this color, which can range from deep burgundy to near-fuchsia, starting to spread wider and wider across your local news weather forecast maps like a spilled bottle of merlot, sometime in October. Those reddish hues are a visual representation of higher temperatures, the result of a seasonal weather phenomenon known as the Santa Ana winds (a.k.a. “the devil winds”).

Caused by the seasonal cooling of the Great Basin, air moves west, warming and picking up speed along the way. The result is a whipped-up and blast-furnace-hot wind that heralds the arrival of autumn in L.A. like nothing else does. (I’m not the only color-coder here; novelist Raymond Chandler referenced the Santa Anas in the opening lines of his 1938 short story titled — wait for it — “Red Wind.”)

Calabasas beige

The hills of Calabasas with some greenery in the front but mostly dry, beige-colored grass.
The putty-colored panorama of King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas. The beige hillsides, once a sure indicator of SoCal fall, are now that hue more often than not.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

In the same color family as Malibu beach-sand ecru and desert-dust khaki, this peculiar color that blanketed the rolling, grassy hillsides flanking both sides of the 101 Freeway between Calabasas and Camarillo used to be a pretty solid indicator that SoCal autumn was in full swing. Unfortunately, it’s a smoky taupe tapestry more often than not these days, perhaps a casualty of the state’s historic drought.

On a side note, I’ve always thought the putty-hued hillocks amid which Kim Kardashian and Kanye West (now Ye) once made a home together might have inspired the bandage-beige palette of his early Yeezy apparel collections and the clay colorways of her Skims shapewear label.

Pumpkin spice terracotta

Two Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte drinks in front of a pile of orange pumpkins
Starbucks, which has been unleashing seasonal pumpkin-spice products since 2004, is a signal that fall — and a host of other terracotta-colored products, including Cheerios, nondairy creamer and Oreos — are about to be everywhere.
(Starbucks)

During most of the year, this color is confined primarily to curved roofing tiles and ornamentation of SoCal’s Spanish architecture. Then, suddenly, without warning, one fall (or fall-adjacent) day it crawls down from the roofline and into our limited-edition foodstuffs, including Cheerios, cream cheese, nondairy creamer, Oreos and even our potted meat products, where it usually remains until the day after Thanksgiving.

An “orange hue spiced with notes of nutmeg and cinnamon brown,” according to Benjamin Moore, which sells a paint called Pumpkin Spice 126, this color crept into the local autumnal color scheme by way of coffee chain Starbucks, which launched its seasonal Pumpkin Spice Latte in fall 2004 and never looked back. Unfortunately, the drink’s popularity has resulted in the company releasing it ever earlier (the Pumpkin Spice Latte dropped Aug. 30 this year), thus robbing us of a once-reliable seasonal indicator.

Bourbon brown

A glass bottle filled with brown-colored bourbon and topped with an spread-wing eagle stopper.
L.A.'s muted autumnal palette includes bourbon brown, a shade captured in this bottle of 20-year-old Eagle Double Rare.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

There’s a time-honored tradition in our house (read: one we totally made up) inspired by the oft-repeated fashion advice: Don’t wear white after Labor Day. It involves a seasonal switching around of the bottles on the bar cart; the “white” bottles (clear liquors such as gin and vodka) get shunted toward the back, and the dark liquors (whiskeys and rums) move to the front.

Like old friends who’ve been summering elsewhere, my wife and I make it a point to reacquaint ourselves with all manner of darker drink: Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds, Sazeracs and, as the holiday season approaches, the festive combination of hard cider and bourbon called a Stone Fence.

The Sierra is in the midst of a transition, as temperatures start to cool and leaves begin to change colors.

Although there’s no specific date that we do the switch-up, we’ve aimed for September ever since 2007 — the year the U.S. Senate declared the month between August and October as National Bourbon Heritage Month. (And before you get all worked up about it, yes, the martini is seasonless, which is why there’s always a decorative decanter of Artingstall’s gin stowed in the freezer.)

Layering-piece plaid

A close-up view of a bold, plaid cashmere button-front shirt.
A sure-fire sign of L.A. autumn’s arrival is the appearance of layering-piece plaids like this cashmere button-front shirt by L.A.-based brand the Elder Statesman.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

One of the less common color schemes to mark the end of SoCal summer, the stealth pattern often goes unnoticed until someone turns up at the late-night fire pit sunburned and bare-armed. For some, the first wearing o’ the layering-piece plaid, usually sometime in early November, is an indicator that summer weather is firmly in the rearview mirror.

Look closely for the telltale pattern peeking from tote bags and the backseats of cars early on. As the nights grow longer and cooler, plaid’s presence grows. And its most robust presence will be in the button-front shirts tied around the waists of early-morning dogwalkers and canyon hikers.

Dodger blue

L.A. City Hall in the background and the fountain at Grand Park in the foreground, both awash in Dodger blue.
Dodger blue has been such a consistent autumnal color in L.A. It felt almost like fall had come months early when, on Aug. 3, City Hall and the fountain at Grand Park were awash in the hometown team’s signature color to honor the passing of Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The most eye-catching of the colors heralding the arrival of L.A.-style autumn has been — at least for the last decade — Dodger blue. That’s because the Major League Baseball team that makes its home in Chavez Ravine has earned a postseason playoff berth every year since 2013 (including this year), making it to the World Series thrice and winning it once. In those early, enthusiastic days of each October, we all “bleed Dodger blue,” and the team’s signature hue seems to pop up just about everywhere the eye might wander.

Put on a light sweater and head to the region’s apple orchards, which are currently welcoming visitors to pick their own fruit.

In addition to the expected slew of blue — spotted on ball caps, jerseys, foam fingers and the occasional aloha shirt — October traditionally arrives with an assortment of blued-up donuts, azure-colored soft-serve ice cream cones and even an entire blue-hued house in East L.A. That’s why, in early August, it momentarily felt like fall might have arrived pumpkin-spice early when L.A. City Hall lit up in Dodger blue. That’s until we learned it was to pay homage to the legendary sportscaster Vin Scully, who died Aug. 2 at 94. (Fun fact: Dodger blue might even be lurking in your web browser — and not just on a seasonal basis either. It’s the only sports team to be so honored.)


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